Saturday, December 27, 2014

Science is Alive and Well in Oklahoma, part two.

This is probably the last post for 2014. Normally I would think about how to summarize the past year, but it is not different enough from any other year for me to do so. I suppose, then, it is good to end the year with the second essay about the Oklahoma Academy of Science meeting. Science is alive and well and actively responding to the challenges of the modern world. I focus here on a symposium that was an overview of the present and future scientific challenges in Oklahoma, which are not that different from the ones faced by other states. I posted a version of this essay on the Oklahoma Academy of Science blog.

Among the afternoon activities at the 2014 Technical Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Science was a well-attended symposium about science-based issues in Oklahoma. About forty people were in the audience to learn the latest about evolution education, climate change, conservation of natural areas, fracking and earthquakes, and water issues.

It wasn’t just scientists or students in the audience or on the panel. We included speakers from citizens’ groups as well. You didn’t have to be at the symposium very long before you realized how important it is to understand science in order to make the right decisions about these issues, which are among the most important that Oklahoma (and every place else) now face and will continue to face in the future. This is an important fact that, I think, most politicians and perhaps also most members of the press overlook. Fracking, for example, is not something that oil companies have the sole competence to judge. Citizens need access to scientific information. Perhaps even more, they have to know that they need scientific information.

Vic Hutchison, a retired zoology professor from the University of Oklahoma, is the grand old man of evolution education in Oklahoma. He started Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), which may be the most active state-level anti-creationist group in the country. He summarized recent creationism-inspired bills that have come before the Oklahoma legislature and have, thus far, failed, mainly due to the persistent efforts of OESE members. Because OESE focuses on the importance of science, rather than attacking religion, we have been able to convince not just the Democrats but some of the Republican majority as well. A couple of years ago, Vic received an award from the Academy for his many years of work. Such an award is not an annual event but given only for special reasons. OESE leaders will have a hard time even collectively continuing the work that Vic has started.

Monica Deming, a researcher at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, summarized the scientific evidence of current and future climate change and how it will affect Oklahoma. Oklahoma is facing higher temperatures and droughts in upcoming decades that will have a major effect on the economy. As an employee of a state scientific agency, she did not address any political issues. She didn’t have to. The facts speak for themselves.

Jona Tucker, a project manager for The Nature Conservancy, told about the conservation efforts of the Conservancy, which works with private land owners—conservation problems simply cannot all be solved by the state or federal government. She called on any scientists present to conduct some of our research on Conservancy properties. Nothing proves the usefulness of Nature Conservancy work as well as having scientific research done in areas that the Conservancy has saved, and having this research published.

Amberlee Darold, one of Oklahoma’s two state seismologists (scientists who study earthquakes), explained that Oklahoma has begun to rival California as the earthquake capital of the United States. While from 1882 to 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of 0.1 earthquakes per year of magnitude 4.0 or greater, there were three per year in 2009 to 2013, and 2014 by itself has had twenty-four such earthquakes—and the year isn’t even over yet. This corresponds precisely with the recent acceleration of new oil extraction techniques. The earthquakes correlate closely with wastewater injection for oil extraction, but not actually with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) itself. A member of the audience, representing the Sierra Club, pointed out that these were not mere numbers, but reflected significant damage to the homes of people who cannot afford to rebuild their damaged homes. Amberlee just presented the science, but it was obvious to all of us that the explosion of earthquakes in Oklahoma represents a cost shared by nearly everyone in the earthquake-damaged regions of Oklahoma that pays for the profit enjoyed by corporations, mainly by its wealthy directors and investors.

Amy Ford is president of Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer (CPASA). The Arbuckle-Simpson is a very important aquifer in south-central Oklahoma. Amy told us about the long struggle to prevent this water, upon which several large and many small communities depend for their survival—many thousands of people—from being sold and piped away for the profit of just a handful of land owners. The passionate efforts of this citizens’ group, and its legal work that is funded by private donations, has resulted in laws and policies that now protect this aquifer. CPASA shows that citizens need not be the helpless victims of corporations. (And it helps to have rich donors helping out as well.) Amy emphasized the importance of science in this effort. CPASA had the scientific evidence on its side. When corporate interests challenged them, CPASA invited them to present their scientific evidence—of which they had none. As unlikely as it may have seemed, science won the day against political and economic shouting matches—even if just barely.

The panel participants are important people and I am glad they accepted our invitation to speak. It wasn’t always easy. For example, the governor of Oklahoma appointed Amy Ford to a panel that is evaluating Oklahoma reading and math education standards (and eventually, I assume, science education standards as well). Because at some point she may be confronted by creationists, she had to avoid any appearance of favoritism with OESE, and had to politely leave the room while Vic was talking. In order to have all of these fine people on the same panel, we found a way to work things out.

The presentations generated some lively discussion. Although I had to step in at least once and direct the energies of some audience members in a constructive direction, I believe that the occasional strong feelings were a good thing: it means that these issues matter! Even some inconvenient comments were, in my opinion, welcome (to a point).

Here is a photo (sorry, it is not of the greatest quality) of the panel members. L to R: Amberlee Darrold; Jona Tucker; Amy Ford; Monica Deming; Vic Hutchison.

I think symposia of this nature are going to become a new tradition in OAS. Terry Conley, president-elect of OAS, is already planning a symposium about endangered species, which is an important issue in Oklahoma, where many citizens do not realize that it is an important issue.

I end the year with this thought: in upcoming years, scientists and science activists will continue in their passionate work to make the world a better place for everyone.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Science is Alive and Well in Oklahoma, part one.

I posted the following on the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences blog a few weeks ago, but the rest of you might want to know about this too.

The Oklahoma Academy of Science held its 2014 Technical Meeting at Northeastern Oklahoma State University (Broken Arrow campus) on November 7, preceded by the Executive Council meeting on November 6. As president, I enjoyed watching and occasionally coordinating the good and enthusiastic work of so many students and faculty from around the state. Nobody had to be there. It was sheer enthusiasm for science that made the meeting a success.

I wanted to mention one paper that really got my attention. Lois Ablin, a chemist at Oral Roberts University, talked about advances in “green chemistry,” particularly in student organic chemistry laboratories. I took organic chemistry in 1976 and it has been downhill from there. Back then, we poured toxic chemicals all over the place (including benzene on our hands), and all of them ended up down the drain and probably out in the ocean (I was at UC Santa Barbara). Today, thankfully, we have many rules that preserve personal and environmental safety. One of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of waste produced by student labs is simply to use small-scale reactions. In my day we used whole flasks and beakers of toxic chemicals. But in green chemistry, the same reactions can be performed in small vials, heated in a microwave oven instead of over a burner or in a hot glove. It saves time, too: you can microwave a reaction for eight minutes with the same result that you would get with an hour-and-a-half reflux. Some universities have even gone so far as to carry out reactions on filter paper, rendering fume hoods unnecessary.

There were lots of student posters. This is an time for faculty to see the excellent work done by students at other universities. I barely had time to glance at them and take grainy photos. I got to stop and look at a poster from a student at Cameron University who had studied the stomach contents of a mammoth that had lived in what is now southern Oklahoma during the last ice age (in case you didn’t know there were mammoths here). The mammoth had eaten horsetails.

Bruce Carnes, from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, gave the luncheon presentation about the evolution of aging. What an interesting topic, especially for people who might have wondered what evolution has to do with medicine. For those who might have thought that aging is simply a problem that can be solved by some magic medical bullet, Bruce (who described himself as a disappointed optimist) had some bad news. Natural selection has indeed produced a human species that is guaranteed, in the absence of intrinsic and extrinsic accidents, to live for about 55 years, which is enough time not only for nearly all reproduction to be completed but for a person in tribal society to discharge their grand-parental duties as well. Fifty-five years, then, is our “warranty period.” After age 55, the body starts to break down in multiple ways. There’s no way to stop it, even though we try very hard to prolong our lives as much as possible. It makes more sense, Bruce indicated, to try to have a healthy old age rather than simply a long one. Once the “expiration date” has passed, a car or a person might keep running for a long time, but will require more and more intervention. Old age is not a problem to be solved but a process to be managed.

In the next entry, I will write about the symposium about science-related issues in the afternoon. It was one of the most exciting things the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences has ever done, I think.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


For a long time, I was a mugwump. A mugwump is someone who straddles the fence on an issue, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other. Actually, the term was first used by Republicans in 1884 who broke ranks with their party and supported Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate for president, and it supposedly came from the Algonquian word mugumquomp, or war leader. But I like the apocryphal story better.

At one time I straddled the fence between creationism and science. By the end of my theistic evolutionist period, I no longer believed in a God who actually did anything in the physical world, but a personal essence (which I carefully avoided defining) Who gave significance to the world. This position may be scientifically inconsistent, but it was the best I could do at the time.

Mugwumps like to look for creative ways of blending things that are not easy to blend, like religion and science. They are not necessarily bad people; they just have a very frustrating job. They are the emulsifiers who break up big gobs of sentimental fat into little particles that can stay suspended in an aqueous medium of science, in which those sentiments cannot actually dissolve.

A couple of the students in my evolution class this semester were mugwumps. I’m okay with that; it is much preferable to them being hostile creationists. But they were able to find a scripture that I had never heard used in this connection before. They said that the Bible guided them into avoiding unnecessary conflicts about the past, which would include creation vs. evolution. Both of them cited Titus 3:9, in which someone writing in the name of the Apostle Paul advised someone named Titus: “Avoid foolish arguments, genealogies, rivalries, and quarrels about the law, for they are useless and futile.” While this does nothing to actually reconcile science and religion, it is, I think, a wise religious insight. Whatever may be true about the Christian religion has nothing to do with whether your chromosomes have ape pseudogenes in them. These students, and many other people, believe that the Gospel has nothing to do with whether creationism is true or not. Creationism, these students implied, is useless and futile.

So, is creationism a waste of time, even from a religious viewpoint? However that may be, it is far from useless from a political viewpoint. Here in Oklahoma, Republican politicians find it very useful. Whenever they want to get voters to think they are defending God against the Democratic spawn of Satan, all they have to do is to sponsor a creationist bill or two. This is much easier than actually doing any work. You would think that a Christian politician would heed the command in Micah 6:8: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Or James 1:27: “Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Isaiah 3:15 quotes God as saying, “What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the face of the poor into the dust?” But helping poor people is hard work. It is much easier to just spout off about creationism. You get more votes that way too. At least in Oklahoma.

Any of you who might encounter disputes with creationists—I have encountered remarkably few—might want to keep Titus 3:9 in mind. Maybe you do not consider the Bible to be an authoritative command from God but the creationists should.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Throughout history, emperors and dictatorial leaders have used violence and torture upon their foreign and domestic subjects. Homo sapiens has been the most violent and bloody species in the evolutionary history of the Earth. Far from limiting this tendency, religion has mostly made our human evil more potent. I do not mean that this is all that religion does; it does some good things too. But its principal fitness advantage in human evolutionary history has been to enhance the power of dominant people. That is, religion evolved primarily as a means of suppression. For our species, it is evil, since we know the difference between altruism and oppression, between love and hatred. A wolf is just a wolf but a violent man is evil.

Many of us grew up with the belief that the United States of America was different, that America was a force for good in the world. Of course, we should have known that this is not true. I should have known this because of what the United States government did to my Cherokee ancestors and to members of every other tribe of Native Americans. And we all should have known that America was not a good country because of government approval of slavery and later of oppression against black people.

Some of us dared to hope that America is not like that anymore. Although much oppression and police brutality remain, the government no longer kills Natives or enslaves blacks. But the recent release of the Senate report on brutality against detainees after September 11, 2001 must cause us to reconsider whether our government is a force of good. Our government’s response was not just to track down terrorists and bring them to justice, but also to grab Muslim men at random and torture them. A detainee is simply someone who has been thrown in prison, without regard to evidence of guilt.

CIA operatives, in some cases, did their best to degrade detainees by “interrogation techniques” that had absolutely no chance of yielding useful information. Torture is not just evil but is scientifically worthless. CIA operatives:

  • Used rectal injections on detainees as a method of torture, with no medical justification.
  • Subjected detainees to up to 180 hours of sleep deprivation.
  • Stripped detainees naked, hooded them, and dragged them down the prison hallways.
  • Forced detainees with broken feet or legs to stand in stressful positions.

And the list goes on. Now, suppose I were captured in a random sweep of white American men by a Muslim government and subjected to these tortures. I would confess to anything to get the pain to stop, since it would be clear that this would be the only way to stop the pain. I would confess to being a secret agent from Mars.

As if this news was not bad enough, Dick Cheney has gone on record as saying that he had no regrets about having the CIA do any of these things, and that he would do them again in a minute. He is proud that we torture people to force them to say what we want them to say. This is what the former Vice President wants the world to think about the United States.

Cheney proclaimed that we should not have been nice to the people who attacked us. But the people who actually attacked us on 9-11 were dead. And some of the detainees were guilty, and some were not; torture did not yield any useful information regarding which was which. It would be like terrorists grabbing random Americans and torturing them—which is, in fact, what they do, and something that, until now, we have pretended we did not do.

Okay, so we were not as bad as many other countries, such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And today we are not as bad as, let me think, North Korea. But that is not the point. We claim moral superiority, that we are a good nation fighting against bad ones. The fact that our government differs from evil governments in degree rather than quality is of little comfort to those of us who wish we could be proud to be Americans.

Not all Americans are bad, of course. Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize, after all. At least he has some respect in the world. But the world also knows the utter and pure hostility with which Republicans confront Mr. Obama. And there are millions of other good Americans, some of whom are reading these words. But what difference does it make? They hear what Mr. Obama says, and they hear what the CIA has done, and they believe the actions rather than the words. And for every Barack Obama saying peaceful things, there is a Dick Cheney proclaiming that America will do whatever it wants to whomever it wants whenever it wants.

Having Dick Cheney be the face of America in the world right now proclaims one thing and one thing only: America is strong only because of its force and wealth. The moment that we falter, economically or militarily, we deserve no cooperation or mercy from the rest of the world, which we have disdained. Because of this, I am ashamed to be an American. I am not ashamed of good Americans, including some who are very rich but who spend their wealth to try to eradicate diseases such as malaria that afflict millions of poor people in the world. But the actions of my government cause me to hang my head in shame.

Islamic extremists claim, You call us barbaric? You call us evil? While this does not justify their continued acts of terrorism, it is perfectly clear why they hate us. And I can make no defense for the official actions of the United States of America. Of course we are not as evil as they are (e.g. shooting Malala Yousafzai in the head; she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize the same day that the report was released). But they are terrorists, and we are supposedly the nation of goodness and peace, so the mere fact that we are not as bad as they are means nothing for our image.

We are strong in the world because of our military power and our wealth. That is all. We cannot expect any respect from other countries, but only fear. They will be nice to us because they don’t want us doing something evil to them. We spend more money on military activities than all other countries combined, so it is clear that we can wipe the floor with anybody’s asses if they stand against us. We are the Babylon, the Roman Empire, of the modern world. And that is pretty much all there is to it.

Can you see why I cannot think of a title for this essay? What word or phrase could encompass the profound stain that permeates America’s image now?

Monday, December 8, 2014


I recently ran across a copy of the Communist Manifesto by Groucho Marx and Freddie Engels. It looked short enough—sort of a pamphlet—that I thought I might read it. It has a few nice quotes in it, but to me it is hardly the stirring document that is supposed to have inspired the hearts of millions of people. Despite its brevity, I am not sure I understood it. The basic point, I think, is that capitalism creates a “bourgeoisie” class of rich owners of corporations, which oppress the working class “proletariat,” who then inevitably rise up in revolution.

The fall of the USSR was not the failure of communism. The USSR was not a communist country. It was an oligarchy. The leaders pretended that they were communists but actually they were rich capitalists who used power to oppress the very working class they claimed to have liberated. The same thing occurred in China. Today, both countries are oligarchies that use capitalism to make a few people rich, sans most of the communist phraseology. The United States is also an oligarchy. A few rich people make the decisions, regardless of what the citizenry or even the market desires. President Obama recently said that two hundred rich people could determine the outcome of elections. This seemed very cynical to come from the mouth of a man who once exulted in the power of large numbers of people making small contributions, the man who said “Yes we can.” Republicans, of course, believe that this is not just the way it is, but is the way it ought to be. Mitt Romney is five hundred times as rich as I am, which to a Republican means I must be five hundred times as stupid, or lazy, or both. The old USSR, the new Russia, Maoist China, modern China, and the USA are all oligarchies. Oligarchs are the bourgeoisie, and everyone else is the proletariat. Marx and Engels adequately described European society of the early industrial revolution and modern American society, but the description also fits countries that pay lip service to Marx.

The most spectacular failure of the viewpoint of Marx and Engels is that oppressed people have not risen up consistently or for very long. The Occupy Movement, and the democracy movement in Hong Kong, both failed because most people wanted to get back to work, understandably afraid that revolt would make them lose their jobs. The Arab Spring has turned out to mostly be “give us a different dictator.” Corporations own us. Congress, doing the bidding of the rich, has already shown that they are willing to send the entire country into default if we do not do what rich people demand. Corporations own the government too.

The main reason that Marxism has failed is that it does not reflect the dynamics of biological or cultural evolution. Animal societies, including ours, are complex networks of oppression and altruism, which promote the individual genetic fitness of dominant individuals and their families. Marx and Engels were wrong in assuming that the proletariat would work for the good of its own group. (They were also wrong in assuming that family units and religion would disappear. They thought family and religion were economic structures, when in reality they are evolved and instinctual adaptations.)

True communism can work in small communities or tribes, such as Native American villages prior to European conquest or the early communities of the Christian church, but not on a national scale. Neither does free enterprise work on a national scale—and for the same reason: the bourgeoisie, whether in Russia or the USA, want to get money for themselves, regardless of the effects on society. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not a hand of freedom but an oligarch fist.

Big corporations actually do their best to stifle free enterprise. Let me give you an example. Lots of people want to invest in renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy. People invest in the infrastructure necessary to generate their own electricity, which (if enough of them do it) saves the utilities the potentially huge cost of building new power plants. Sounds like free enterprise: people freely choose to do something that saves them money in the long run. But the Koch brothers do not like it, because it means that the utilities that get fossil fuels from them will not make as much money. So the Koch brothers have gotten state governments, including Oklahoma where I live, to tax solar and wind energy production (see this recent New York Times editorial). The Koch brothers want their enterprise to be free, but no one else’s.

Is there anything we can do? The only changes that have ever amounted to much are the slow ones that germinate and grow in the minds of people. The slow work of health education is largely responsible for the decline in smoking, from its 1965 peak in which 42 percent of American adults smoked (an average of 11.7 cigarettes per day) to its 2011 level, in which only 19 percent of adults smoke, an average of 3.4 cigarettes per day.

What I will do is to continue teaching my students what is right, even if it hurts corporate profits. I want my students to be healthy, even though the tobacco and processed-food corporations will lose profits if my students stop smoking and eat less processed food and less meat, and if they walk instead of driving as much. That is what I will keep doing. I will not hold my breath waiting for the proletariat to rise up.

Merry Christmas, comrade.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What Do College Science Classes Accomplish?

The Fall 2014 semester is about over. For many professors and students, it is a busy spring to the end. But I deliberately arranged my schedule so that the last week of classes would be leisurely. I have a review, an extra credit video, and a time for them to come and ask questions. I did this partly because I wanted to have some extra time in case bad weather or illness forced me to cancel some classes. But I also did it because I realized that cramming material into a course right up until the last moment serves no useful purpose.

Either the students “get it” well before the last week of class, or they aren’t going to. What do I mean by “get it”? What I want them to “get” is a few basic points, and an appreciation of the importance of science. All the rest they can look up online if they need to. I want them to get the basic points because, if they do not, they will never see any reason to ever look up anything about science in the future. I want to get them to see the world in a different way.

What are some basic points? Here are a few.

·         There is enough food in the world. Total agricultural productivity is enough to give every person on earth 2868 calories a day. Yet 805 million people worldwide are undernourished. The problem is not productivity but politics and economics. The best land is used for cash crops, especially for livestock feed. You don’t have to give up meat, but just eat less of it.
·         You have pseudogenes. You are carrying around the evidence of your evolutionary ancestry inside your chromosomes.
·         Plants (and photosynthetic microbes) keep the Earth alive. They produce all the oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, make all the food, hold down the soil, prevent floods, and help recharge aquifers.
·         The key to a healthy lifestyle: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants (a quote from Michael Pollan); and exercise as part of daily life, e.g. walking. Frugality will make you healthy and happy and will help save the planet too. If you eat less meat, you will enjoy it more, according to numerous personal experiences.
·         Notice things and think about what you see. Notice the trees and the birds and the fossils, and think about what they do and/or where they came from.
·         Make a habit of thinking about why you believe what you believe. Demand evidence and be willing to search for evidence yourself. We all have biases. Be aware of your own biases.

If they haven’t gotten this by December 1, they are not going to get it. I believe that less is more when it comes to teaching: they will remember more if you teach them fewer facts to memorize. None of them will make a bad political or economic decision because they forgot what an endoplasmic reticulum is. I teach for those who want to think, and I convey to them the joy of living a life of thinking about the world rather than just being a member of the food chain. For the rest, I just keep track of their attendance and grades.

Monday, December 1, 2014

What is Hell Like? Come to Church and Find Out, or Not

I think this is the third time I have posted photos on this blog from the marquee of the church down the street from where I live. In the first photo, the marquee indicated, “Big Bang Theory: You’ve Got to be Kidding—God.” Interesting that God should actually provide a direct quotation to this particular church without providing it to other churches. I kind of thought they believed the Bible was God’s word, but apparently God sends them direct quotes. I used this photo in my 2012 book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged,Stressed-Out World. At first I thought God was ridiculing cosmology, but I have gradually come to realize that what really disturbed God was the television series by that name. Apparently God really hates TV shows with geeks in them. In the second photo, the marquee announced, “Evolution: The Science of Calling God a Liar.” I made a YouTube video of this sign, and it got copied around the FaceBookosphere.

Note of caution: There is a website that makes fake church marquee images. They are funny but don’t take them seriously. For example, the church sign that said, “God to President Bush: Those little voices are not from me. Check your meds,” was funny but not genuine. And that joke about the church marquee that said, “What is Hell? Come to church and find out” is likewise apocryphal.

But in this third example the marquee looks, at first, not too different from other church marquees. It is not outrageous, but subtly misleading in a way that I think is interesting enough to discuss at this point. There is apparently a multi-church seminar called “ExploreGod.” In this series, they ask important questions, such as Does God exist? or (as in this photo) Why does God allow pain and suffering? These are good questions. But how a church approaches them and how scientists might approach them reveal a fundamental difference between religion and science.

First note that science itself cannot answer either question. But scientists as people frequently wonder about such questions and come up with personal answers to them.

When a church asks, Does God exist?, there is only one possible answer. And everything that leads up to their conclusion is forced into lockstep march toward that conclusion: the answer of Yes. But when scientists ask, Does God exist?, you get a whole range of answers. Science does not force its arguments into a lockstep march toward the answer of No. Many scientists answer Yes, many answer No. But many scientists, myself included, cannot answer this question. Instead we ask, what do you mean by God? If you mean a supreme being who controls all the details of the universe, the answer is clearly No. But if you mean a spiritual essence of love, the presence whereof can never be tested but which many of us would really, really like to believe in, the answer is a resounding I hope so for those of us in the middle. Scientists are always questioning our assumptions and biases. The churches answer the question like an army; scientists answer it like a herd of cats.

Similarly, when churches ask the question in the photo, you know that they will reach some kind of answer or other that leaves God both merciful and all-powerful. They might answer it (especially this church), “God allows suffering because there are Democrats in the world.” Others might answer it, “Because God is testing and strengthening us.” But both of these answers fail to match the evidence, because (in response to the first) even Republicans suffer now and again—there are some forms of pain from which even assault weapons cannot protect them—and (in response to the second) because pain and suffering is way, way, prodigiously, lugubriously, supercalifragalisticexpialadociously, abominably greater than is necessary for strengthening a person’s character. We all expect life to be challenging, to find thorns in a rose garden, but for many people (so far, not for me) suffering has been overwhelming. A little Palestinian kid getting killed by an Israeli mortar, or getting killed because she was used as a human shield by an Islamist terrorist, does not promote that kid’s spiritual development. (See, here is common ground between Israel and Hamas: they both believe that Palestinian civilians are expendable.)

The one answer a church will not permit is to say, “Shit happens and God doesn’t stop it.” There may be a God-essence that wants us to overcome struggles to the extent that we can, and this can be considered a potential Christian answer, but no church would say this, because then people would stop coming and bringing their money. That is, if you can’t get God to alleviate your suffering, then what is the point of prayer and church involvement?

But scientists as people are open to a range of responses to such a question.

As Bart Ehrman has pointed out in his book God’s Problem, the Bible offers about four different answers to the question of why God permits suffering, depending on which part of the Bible you read. The answers all contradict one another. Scientists, as people, would note this range of Biblical answers without trying to force everyone to believe just one of them, without screwing the scriptures that say otherwise into confirming the belief decided in advance.

And of course there are lots of religious answers outside of Christianity. Christian Scientists (who are not Christian scientists) claim that suffering is an illusion.

Conservative religion says, “We have the answer, and we will force all evidence, even scriptural evidence, into confirming it.” Scientists as people say, “There are different possible answers, and we may just have to accept the fact that we cannot know which if any are correct.”

In closing, I point out that this photo was taken on September 22, 2014. Notice that the sign just below the marquee is still advertising a God-loves-guns-and-wants-you-to-have-assault-weapons seminar they sponsored the previous May. The seminar is over enough already and you should take the sign down. But they don’t, because apparently this sign—apparently a permanent fixture now—expresses that they think the Gospel is really about: not Jesus, not God, but guns.